Four years removed from cancer, Ian Gilligan is making noise in college golf
25 Nov 2022
by Sean Melia of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Ian Gilligan Rankings, Ian Gilligan Profile

Ian Gilligan (Long Beach State photo)
Ian Gilligan (Long Beach State photo)

During the summer of 2018, Ian Gilligan would walk out of his back door and join his friends for golf. This scene emits an endless summer vibe - youthful energy, hot sun, and joy. However, for Gilligan, his time with friends playing a game he loved was an escape from a hospital bed and chemotherapy.

Golf has always been a part of Gilligan’s life.

As a toddler, Ian thwacked golfballs around his San Francisco apartment with a wooden spoon. When his father, Grant, stumbled across a Snoopy golf club on Market St., he decided it would be the perfect replacement for Ian’s homely wooden spoon.

Next, it was trips to the driving range.

“We’d sit and watch him hit balls,” Grant Gilligan said. “It was our entertainment.”

Ian was just over two years old, but he garnered admiration from passers-by.

“He’d go back and forth from the range to the putting green,” Grant said. “I’d have to carry him on my shoulders like a sack of potatoes to get him to leave, and he’d be crying all the way to the car.”

As the years passed, Gilligan’s love of golf, along with his skill, continued to grow. He competed in his first event as a five-year-old in the Callaway Junior World Championship in San Diego, an event he qualified for nine times.

Gilligan wasn’t just competing in junior events against the best and the brightest; he was making a name for himself. He was named Bay Area US Kids Player of the Year once and also won the Junior Golf Association of Northern California Player of the Year twice.

This was all before he turned 11.

Flashbulb moments

Ian showcased a skill for the game at an early age. Grant remembers watching Ian on the chipping green. Ian was focused, standing 25 feet from his target. The first attempt went into the hole; so did the second shot. When the third shot went in, Grant couldn’t believe it until a stranger across the green yelped. He also had been watching the young boy hole three straight chip shots.

Ian also carded ten birdies in a Northern California junior event when he was 12 years old, competing against kids as old as 18.

It was becoming clear that Ian had a supreme talent and the proper mindset for the game.

“I like being out there on my own. There’s no one else to blame for a mistake,” Ian said. “You have to go through the mental battles on your own.”

As he started his freshman year of high school in Reno, Nev., Ian didn’t know that a new battle was awaiting him in the summer of 2018.

Cancer treatment and recovery

In hindsight, there were signs that Ian’s health was deteriorating during his freshman year. During the winter, a random lump appeared near his groin. That was followed by a painful blister on his shoulder a few weeks later. Antibiotics did the trick, but his body was fighting lymphoma, they just didn’t know it, yet.

In hindsight, even an off-hand comment from a college coach registered more clearly a few months later.

While they were on a college recruiting visit, one coach outlined what the program looks for in their players. The coach mentioned talent; Ian had that in spades. However, they also look for physical maturity. They told Ian he had a long way to go.

“And when I look back at the pictures, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, he was totally getting skinny from the cancer,’” Grant said.

The cancer was stripping Ian of all his strength, but they didn’t know the ticking time bomb even existed.

Ian Gilligan enjoying a gift during his treatment (Credit: Grant Gilligan)
A painful lump in his left armpit was the clear sign that something was wrong; the pain was so bad that Ian couldn’t swing a golf club. At first they thought it might be a cyst, but a biopsy showed that Ian had lymphoma, a slow-moving cancer that was treatable with chemotherapy. It turned out that only 100 kids in the world had ever had this form of cancer.

While most high school freshmen search for jobs and hang out with friends and cause trouble during the summer, Ian spent every third week of his freshman summer in the hospital receiving chemotherapy. The treatment would damage his immune system so he’d have to spend seven nights in the hospital to ensure his body was strong enough to fight off any diseases.

One thing Ian could do between rounds of treatment - play golf. Golf was a safe sport for Ian. It’s outside and he could keep a safe distance from his friends.

The Gilligan house is on a golf course, so Ian could slip out the back door, meet some friends, and play golf until his body told him to go home. Sometimes that meant practicing his putting and chipping and other times that meant playing nine holes.

It was an important part of Ian’s recovery.

“I would be pretty tired the first week home from the hospital,” Ian said. “But seeing my friends and playing golf got me out of the house.”

There was one scare where Ian’s body did have to fight off a serious infection. The pain in Grant’s voice catches as he tells the story of watching his son’s health deteriorate as he battled the infection in the ICU.

“The ICU got super intense; it’s a lot different than being in the oncology department,” Grant said. “They pushed us out of the room. I think it was the third antibiotic that they used that finally worked. Pretty tough. Pretty intense.”

As Ian recovered from his infection, things started to turn around. On January 22 Ian got to do something that marked the end of his treatment and signified a clean bill of health. He rang the bell at Renown Children's Hospital.

As Ian spoke about his experience, his mindset as a silent warrior crystallized. He focused on what he could control.

“I never focused on the negatives too much. I think it's important to stay busy with something. I would play golf or play video games. That got my mind off things,” Ian said.

Even when things turned scary, and the infection forced Ian into the ICU, he understood the value of trying to be positive.

“Something pretty important is to focus on your day-by-day and enjoy what you are going to do. And so I think finding an activity to get your head and mind off of it is pretty important.”

Over the four years since his battle with cancer, Ian’s mindset has changed.

“In general, being grateful every day, I think I’m more grateful just to be able to play golf and still be able to compete and have fun. Definitely super grateful for that. And so in that sense, yes, it's definitely changed.”

The Road Back

Incredibly, Ian’s return to the golf course was pretty seamless due to his ability to play golf between rounds of chemo. Brandin Deets, Ian’s trainer before his cancer, helped Ian regain strength. Deets is based in Jupiter, Fla.; he has worked with professionals and elite amateurs all over the country.

Deets and Gilligan have worked together remotely for six years.

“Working with Ian through his treatment was unlike anything I’ve ever had to do before,” Deets said. “I’d just gauge his energy level and we’d check in to see what he could do.”

Deets describes Gilligan as patient, coachable and open.

“He’s not afraid to ask questions,” Deets said.

Ian’s cancer stripped him of a pivotal period for strength training. Once he was physically able to dig in and make gains, Ian closed all the gaps that his cancer caused. Ian’s speed and explosion are where Deets thinks they should be. That’s a credit to his patience and Ian’s determination.

The silent warrior.

Picking a College

While missing the chance to play competitive golf for an entire summer hindered some of Gilligan’s recruiting prospects, he did have some fantastic options. After long conversations with his parents and working through the pros and cons of a few schools, Gilligan chose Long Beach.

Ian Gilligan on signing day (credit: Grant Gilligan)
He had offers to play in the Big Ten Conference, but the weather played a big part. Golf outside for 12 months appealed to Gilligan along with the proximity to home and his trusted swing coach, George Gankas, who he’s been working with for six years.

Last year as a freshman, Gilligan had three-top-10 finishes in his final four events of the year, including a second place showing at the Big West Championships and was named the conference’s freshman of the year.

He gained more confidence over the summer when he won the 119th Northern California Golf Association’s Amateur Championship at Spyglass Hill, where he defeated decorated mid-amateur Bobby Bucey.

Now in his sophomore season, Gilligan has found his stride. The silent warrior is out on the course winning tournaments. This fall he was co-medalist at the Nick Watney Invitational with rounds of 66-64-69 to finish at 14-under 199, tying the school’s 54-hole scoring record. He followed that victory with a five-stroke win at The Mackenzie.

Gilligan’s success put him atop the Golf Stat college rankings in October. It’s a list that has names like Michael Thorbjonsen, Caleb Surratt, and Gordon Sargent.

“He doesn’t really care who he’s playing against,” Grant said. “He’s a closer.”

How does it feel to be among those big names?

“It’s really cool,” the silent warrior says.

As he gets further from his treatment, he’s also become an inspiration to people off the course. His Instagram is riddled with comments from people he’s inspired to keep fighting and have a silent warrior mentality.

Gilligan story is inspiring because of his age and his attitude. He’s a young man who stayed positive and remained focused on doing what he needed every day to survive.

Everyone can learn a little something from Ian Gilligan’s story.

With such a bright future, many people will find inspiration from Gilligan’s journey on and off the golf course.

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